Stellar actors can't salvage Toby's effort Lacking: Toby's Dinner Theater, which produced a Helen Hayes award-winner, drops the ball with "West Side Story."

November 05, 1998|By Melinda Rice | Melinda Rice,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Toby's Dinner Theater made history and raised expectations this year when an actor in its production of "Wizard of Oz" won the Helen Hayes Award -- the Washington equivalent of Broadway's Tony Award.

The win for best supporting actor in a resident musical was one of nine nominations that the Columbia theater received this year. David James' win for his performance as the Scarecrow was the first Helen Hayes trophy awarded to a Howard County theater, and the first given for a performance staged at a dinner theater -- a venue that typically garners little respect in the theater world.

In light of that, Toby's boilerplate production of "West Side Story" is a bit of a disappointment.

Two outstanding performances make the show worth seeing, and both deserve consideration for next year's Helen Hayes Awards.

But with a slightly uneven pace and a cast of vastly different abilities, the production comes off not as an award-winning, history-making bit of musical theater, but as, well, dinner theater.

At the pinnacle of the cast are James in the showboat role of Action and Janine Gulisano as the heroine Maria.

James turns in a snappy, well-timed performance as a short-tempered gang member eager to "rumble" with the Puerto Ricans he views as rivals. His is a supporting character, but James' stage presence is so strong he often eclipses his co-stars.

Among them is R. Scott Thompson as Riff, the leader of Action's gang, the Jets. Thompson's performance is consistent, but his voice fails to carry and in group numbers is frequently lost in the crowd -- a serious problem because many key plot points are conveyed by his character.

Also working against Thompson is a marked and unfortunate resemblance to actor Michael J. Fox, right down to many mannerisms. It is difficult to reconcile the hard, violence-prone Riff with someone who looks so much like the earnest, good-natured Marty of the "Back to the Future" movies. Some creative work with his hair and makeup could help with this, but he would still be overshadowed by James.

However, not even the hyperkinetic Helen Hayes winner can eclipse Gulisano.

She offers a finely nuanced, naturalistic portrayal of Maria, a Puerto Rican teen who falls in love with a member of the Jets, rivals of her brother's gang, the Sharks.

Gulisano says she has always wanted to play Maria, and it is a role she seems born to.

The same cannot be said of Daniel Felton's portrayal of her love interest, Tony. Felton has a beautiful voice -- one of the few in the cast that does justice to Stephen Sondheim's lyrics -- but you never forget that he's acting.

He also seems too old for the role, as does Julie Herber, who plays Maria's friend Anita. Neither makes a realistic teen-ager.

Herber in particular offers a jarring contrast to the baby-faced Jon Bell, who ably plays her boyfriend, Sharks leader Bernardo. Herber is the best dancer in the cast, and she is by no means old, but she is too old for this part opposite this actor. She also faces the daunting task of interpreting a role originated -- and still owned -- by Rita Moreno.

Producer/director Toby Orenstein does a good job of using her small stage. Only once -- during the finale of the first act when the cast is onstage and singing at the same time -- does the production overwhelm its venue.

Otherwise, entrances and exits are smooth and prop changes are unobtrusive.

The story -- a modern, musical retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" with the Jets and the Sharks standing in for the Capulets and Montagues -- has not aged well. Arthur Laurents wrote the book and Leonard Bernstein composed the music. With the daily news full of stories about drive-by shootings, pre-pubescent killers and teen-age parents, "West Side Story" -- even with a gang fight, several deaths, an implied rape and a liaison between Maria and Tony -- seems almost quaint in comparison.

Despite its failings, the show is enjoyable. The cast is unfailingly enthusiastic and communicates that to its audience.

Toby's production of "West Side Story" is not great theater, but it is often great fun. And that, after all, is really the point.

The show runs though Nov. 22.

Beginning Nov. 26, Toby's will offer "Children of Eden," a musical retelling of Bible stories that Toby's is billing as "our answer to Broadway's 'The Lion King.' "

Information: 410-730-8311.

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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